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Name: Jeff
Status: other
Grade: n/a
Location: Outside U.S.
Country: USA
Date: Summer 2009

Question:
Why can some birds speak some of the words of the human language and dogs can not?



Replies:
Two non-scientific reasons: 1. "Talking" birds are smarter than dogs, some would claim. I don't know how one would measure this scientifically. And I'm sure there is great debate between "talking" bird lovers and dog lovers. I do know that some "talking" birds learn how to open their cages and perform other skilled tasks. There may be some question whether the birds are just good mimics. 2. In order to mimic sounds, whether speech or other sounds, the vocal cords have to have certain anatomical shapes. Talking birds have this shape; dogs do not.

Vince Calder


Hi Jeff,

A very large part of the answer has to do with the shape of the animal's head and vocal cords.

A dog has a very basic set of vocal cords- thick and stiff, practically no muscles to be able to vary and tune them,and they have a mouth which can vary only slightly. Dogs have very little vocal variation. Some birds on the other hand have a very elaborate set of vocal cords which are thin and elastic, and which they can stretch and tune. Some birds can use their vocal variability to imitate a huge variety of sounds from their environment. One of the world's best imitative birds is the Australian Lyrebird. The following video from Richard Attenborough is quite extraordinary -

http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3433507052114896375&q=bird&hl=en

One step beyond simple imitation is the parrot. If a parrot hears a sound repeated a number of times it can learn to imitate that sound. The parrot however cannot SPEAK in the true sense of the word. What the parrot can do is learn to associate the sound with an event. For instance, it learns to associate the sound "Polly wants a tickle" with getting its tummy rubbed. If it likes having its tummy rubbed it will repeat the sound more often.

Unlike mammals, birds have their vocal cords at the bottom of their windpipe (in a double voice box called a syrinx by the way), and unlike most mammals, the vocal cords of birds are short, thin, very flexible, and connected to an elaborate set of muscles. They can vary the pitch and the tone of each voice box independently, and because it is at the bottom of the throat they can add further variation by stretching and relaxing their windpipe and adjusting the shape of the neck and beak - hence their ability to produce such a variety of sounds. Why does the lyrebird have the ability to produce more sounds - because it has a more complex arrangement of muscles attached to its vocal box than any other bird. For more detailed explanation see the following web page:

http://www.pbs.org/lifeofbirds/songs/index.html

We humans can also produce a lot of variation because we have relatively small vocal cords, which are thin and flexible, and we also have so many muscles in the face which allow us to stretch and adjust the shape of the mouth in an enormous variety of ways.

Dogs, cats horses cows etc have relatively inflexible vocal cords which produce a imited range of sounds, and then they have little ability to adjust the sound because they have their cords at the top of the throat, and they do not have the facial muscles to be able to produce anywhere near enough sound variety to be able to even imitate speech.

Nigel Skelton
Tennant Creek High School
AUSTRALIA



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